Parenting siblings can be challenging – parents of only children often see the ‘live-in playmate’ but what happens when our children don’t enjoy each other’s company or play well together – or perhaps even seem like they hate each other?

Some good news – some research shows that having siblings may even lead to less depression (in adulthood), more life satisfaction and better self-esteem*. There are also studies that suggest that siblings may have a bigger influence than parents. Our siblings influence our outlook, personalities and behaviour. If you feel like your home is often a place of dis-harmony you can take comfort that being a sibling can be beneficial for your mental health and well-being! Through our siblings, we develop skills in communication, compromise and negotiation and we learn to share – both our things and our parents! Although this training ground may feel like a battlefield and the fall-out can be huge, it can be a safe space to learn from mistakes.

As parents it can be disheartening to witness the arguments and it can be difficult not to be drawn in, but most often we are best to allow our children to work together to come to a solution. We can offer an ear, advise time outs – but we should avoid taking sides and stepping in to play referee. Obviously if there is danger of harm (physically or emotionally) we need to step in.

There is often fierce protection between siblings (especially when uniting against parents) but there is also fierce rivalry. There are times when our siblings are our ally and playmate, and times when they are our arch enemy and rival.

As part of the Initial Consultation, Youth Fairies will be asking questions about a child’s family and enquire about siblings. This is often answered with an “unfortunately” or similar response and accompanied by a wry smile and nod from understanding parents. It is rare that there is complete harmony between siblings, even though, in subsequent sessions when we are focusing on the positive and good things from the client’s week, a sibling will frequently be included.

If you are a parent of siblings, you are likely reading this having just enjoyed the wonderful Easter Holidays – two-weeks can feel like just the right amount of time to be home together (with a lovely 4-day bank holiday in the middle). But you might be seeing the long summer holidays rapidly approaching filled with trepidation.

Firstly, let me manage expectations… this blog will not put an end to your children’s arguments and disagreements. As much as we are Youth Fairies and like to make full use of our magic wands, they do not extend to this miracle. But this blog does aim to help you (and your children) to cope better with the disagreements and frustrations and to find ways to take a break from the conflict and to find ways to enjoy moments (from time to time) of being together.

Introduce boundaries and good habits

If you are a regular follower of the Youth Fairy blogs you will be familiar with ways that we work to help children (and parents) understand how their brain works and how we can help to support and create healthy habits. Healthy habits help us to create more serotonin, the feel-good chemical, which helps us to be happier, calmer and more able to cope with challenges (like six-weeks with our siblings). Here are links to some of the blogs that may be helpful:

Understand Differences

While we may look like our siblings, it often seems to be the case that we are very different in our personalities and behaviours. So, sibling rivalry does have a purpose. It helps children to develop their sense of identity and differences. As they battle for their parents’ attention, each child is developing an understanding of their uniqueness and their strengths. In some families this may mean that a child follows in an older sibling’s footsteps and perhaps competes in the same sport or that they choose to completely avoid having to compete in the same area and chose an entirely different hobby or activity to excel in.

As parents, recognising and celebrating each child’s strengths helps to improve their confidence and self-esteem. Finding opportunities to share in these interests can also provide opportunity to have one to one time with each sibling.

In addition, our children may have very different personalities, not only to one another but also to us as parents. It can be sometimes difficult for us to relate to our child if we are a deep thinker and they are more spontaneous, or if we are the excitable extrovert whilst they are a more quiet introvert. It can be helpful to recognise and understand these differences and create opportunities that allow each child (and ourselves) to enjoy time which best suits their personality (understanding that the introvert sibling will benefit from time alone to process their day which is protected and away from their extrovert sibling who wants to share every aspect of their day in the first five minutes of arriving home).

Noise, activity and busyness may cause a more introvert child to respond from their primitive mind due to feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated (especially after a day full of other children or activities). Whereas a more extrovert child may find it very difficult to move into a more calm activity if they are not given an opportunity to share and talk about their day and this may lead to a primitive response and frustration.

You may recall from previous blogs that the central and influential part of the primitive mind is the amygdala, the flight/fight part of the brain, whose main job is to keep us safe. When we move into this part of our brain the amygdala hijacks the rest of the brain and we then find it very difficult to communicate effectively or to consider other people’s opinions or other offered solutions. The language and reasoning part of the brain is shutdown and we look to respond in the ways which have previously kept us safe, or helped us to avoid uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situations. So if the last time our brother put music on so loud that we couldn’t hear ourself think (or process us our day) we shouted, slammed doors and shut ourselves away in our bedroom, was the way that we ‘survived’, we are likely to do it again. This is not a helpful behaviour, but the desired end result was achieved – we got some time and space.

Working Together

Our experience of working with children and parents is that both would like more harmony at home and would like relationships with siblings to improve.  Taking time to talk about what would help and setting some rules and boundaries can be really helpful. When children and teens feel like they have had an input they are also more likely to work within the boundaries.  Just like adults, children prefer to have their thoughts heard rather than just be told how things are going to be.

Agree what would make this the best summer holiday ever!

  • Set aside time before the next holidays to discuss what a good ‘holiday’ looks like. This might be something that you can all think about before (this gives everyone some thinking time and takes the pressure off coming up with ideas in the moment).
  • Introduce a thinking/planning process. One that could work well with both younger children and teens is to develop a “green light thinking” process.
  • Idea gathering – Green Light – first everyone brings their ideas, perhaps on a post-it note. All ideas are welcome and at this stage none are discarded.
  • Review – now everyone can have their say (although no ideas should be ridiculed), you can start to collate similar ideas, discard ones that aren’t possible (too expensive, age restrictions, etc), you may need to collate ideas that are solitary things (or that are things one child wants to do on their own).
  • Action – you can vote on the ideas that have passed the review stage and begin to make plans to take action.

Additional Guidance

  • You may need to provide additional support to the younger siblings or if you have children who are more introverted or who are the peace keepers to ensure they have had a voice.
  • Encourage agreement and compromise – if one child really enjoys board games and the other likes time on the trampoline, discuss how they can agree (at times) to do something that isn’t their favourite activity because their time will come.
  • Support Flexibility – agree how time might be agreed. Some children will be looking froward to a holiday without structure, where others may feel lost without the structure they enjoy at school (you may also have a preference!). Consider how you can flex the plans to meet the preferences.
  • Me time – just as you might appreciate some time for yourself over the holidays, plan in ways that your children can let you know they need time out. It might be that you have a place (even just a particular chair or a blanket) which communicates that your child wants some time out. This can then be respected by other members of the family and gives children time to regulate their emotions (to find their way back into their intellectual mind) and to join in activities again when they are ready. It teaches children how to ask for, and to respect, boundaries.
  • Boredom box – most parents have that time of despair when they hear their child announce “I’m bored”, explaining to your child the benefits of boredom (allows them to process information, be creative, reduces stress…) might not be a helpful response. But having a box with ideas and activities for the bored stage can be really helpful. This box may include art materials, favourite books or even just idea cards that they can create before the holidays start. You could create an ‘ideas jar’ – fill this with ideas of things they could do to fill their time and they can either randomly select one or sort through until they find something they want to do (call a friend, bake a cake, read a book, play an instrument, kick a football).

*Abstract: Milevsky, A: Compensatory patterns of sibling support in emerging adulthood: Variations in loneliness, self-esteem, depression and life satisfaction [2005]